Hating Columbus

All across the internet yesterday I saw numerous posts and articles about how horrible Christopher Columbus was because in 14 hundred and 92 he sailed the ocean blue – and accidentally landed in the Bahamas instead of India.

All these posts bashing Christopher Columbus just irritate me.

I find it disingenuous to constantly lambast Columbus.  Europeans were coming to America before him (Leif Ericson in 1001) and continued to come after him.  If we didn’t celebrate Columbus Day, we would celebrate some other explorer’s day. People were moving around, finding out what they could do, it was the Age of Exploration, for goodness sakes! The cost of goods coming overland from the East was high and the demand for those goods inspired the quest for better trade routes. Whether they sailed south along the coast of Africa or west across the Atlantic Ocean, financial gain and greed drove the explorers onward.

People tend to forget that within ten years of Columbus landing in the West Indies, John and Sebastian Cabot landed in Canada (1497), Vasco de Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope (1498), Alonzo de Ojedo explored what became Columbia and Venezuela (1499), Vicente Pinzon and Juan Dias de Solis discovered Brazil (1500), Rodrigo de Bastidas and Juan de la Cosa discovered what we now know as Panama (1500), and Amerigo Vespucci – who America was really named after – explored the coast of South America (1501). Only 14 years after his famous voyage, Columbus was dead (1506). Within twenty years of that, explorers had visited Argentina, Florida, Uruguay, Mexico, the Gulf Coast, New York Bay, Nicaragua, Grenada, Honduras, Guatamala, El Salvador, Yucatan, Jamaica, Cuba, Hispaniola, and Haiti, and Hernan Cortez had looted the Aztec kingdom.

The day could more accurately be called European Explorers Day.

But, these people did not know they were bringing disease to the citizens of The New World. The early explorers barely understood that washing their hands and bodies was a good thing, let alone that it would prevent the spread of disease in many cases. People had been interacting with one another for thousands of years across Europe, Africa and Asia. They didn’t understand herd immunity or that isolation from disease would lower the immune systems of the native peoples. They brought colonists – just as they had in the Old World – to settle in the newly discovered lands. The colonists brought the things they liked, such as horses, pigs and cattle, coffee, citrus fruits and cotton. The new lands gave them tobacco, tomatoes, vanilla, turkeys and potatoes.

This silly meme that says “celebrate by going into your neighbor’s house and claiming you live there” is just that, silly. Throughout human history, kingdoms had been conquering their neighbors and claiming the new territory as their own – and don’t think that kind of behavior was exclusive to Europeans. The native peoples over here did the same thing, fighting among and between tribes for territory, peace treaties and alliances, and even marriages between princes and princesses of the tribes to expand territory and secure numbers. This is human nature.

We have to remember one thing. They thought they were doing the right thing based on their understanding of the world *at that time*.  Spreading Christianity was mandated by the Bible, and since many people were devout, they did as they were taught. No one seemed to “own” the land as they could comprehend, so they just took it in the name of their sponsor country. To them, the conquering and plunder of local peoples was no different from the conquering of Constantinople by the Ottomans (1453). As with so much of history, we can accept that it didn’t work out well for everyone involved, but we can’t change it by criticizing the participants.  We should not apply our own knowledge and understanding of the world and then judge our uneducated predecessors. That only serves to pander to our own egos and make us feel superior from the safety of our computers and smart phones.

But don’t hate Columbus. That’s like trying to turn a river with a teacup.

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